- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

UNITED NATIONS | The United Nations - often criticized for wayward peacekeepers, a selective approach to human rights and a reputation for swallowing money - does at least one thing well.

No other body gathers data and crunches numbers with as much breadth and depth as the world body and its agencies.

In its 60 years of compiling and analyzing statistics, the United Nations has become the initial source of comparative figures used by governments, activists, relief organizations and think tanks around the world.

Without the U.N. statistical bureaus, analysts say, it would be impossible to know that carbon emissions have increased by 80 percent since the mid-1970s, that about 4 billion cell-phone accounts were in use in 2006, or that the number of Afghan households cultivating opium poppies has increased 14 percent since 2005 to 509,000.

“This is indeed a unique role that the United Nations and its agencies play,” said Michele Montas, spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “These statistics … are essential for our own humanitarian assistance to refugees and displaced people, for school feeding programs or to support women’s participation in political life.”

“I view the U.N.’s principal role as setting standards so that we have identical statistics from across the world,” said an official with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget who has worked closely with the U.N. Statistical Commission.

“It’s a technical effort, not a political one,” added the official, who asked not to be named because she is not authorized to speak to the press.

The U.N. Statistical Commission, which oversees the organization’s information-gathering, also advises governments on how to conform to international standards to ensure that oranges are not compared with olives.

With the United Nations halfway into a 15-year global anti-poverty program called the Millennium Development Goals, accurate figures are crucial to illustrate how far some countries have progressed and where more concentrated efforts are most needed.

Statistics can tell detailed stories that anecdotal impressions cannot. For example:

c923 million people are classified as malnourished (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization).

c536,000 women die in childbirth each year (UNICEF).

c1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day (International Labor Organization).

cDirect foreign investment reached a record $1.83 trillion in 2007 (U.N. Conference on Trade and Development).

Without these statistics, it would be impossible to know the world in all its complexity and nuance.

As the father of demographics, a 17th-century haberdasher-turned-statistician named John Graunt, put it: It is impossible to fix what you cannot measure.

When first lady Laura Bush wants to talk about literacy, she quotes the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization estimate of 771 million adults, two-thirds of them women, who cannot read.

Epidemiologists in Atlanta and the Netherlands fear that genital herpes is on the rise and note the World Health Organization’s research - 500 million already infected with 20 million new cases reported each year - to illustrate their concerns.

“Running a development program without a transparent census is like driving with your eyes closed and your ears covered. You need to know where you’re going,” said Joseph Chamie, who recently retired from the U.N. Statistical Division.

In some cases, politicians choose not to know the numbers because they could prove politically inconvenient.

“Statistics are the explosive place where demography and democracy interact,” Mr. Chamie said. He noted that in countries such as Lebanon, which has not had a census since 1932, a new accounting might destabilize a system that divides top jobs according to religious sect.

Ministries may also fudge numbers to try to get more resources or avoid embarrassment, and U.N. agencies might tweak findings to emphasize the importance of their issues.

Most recent data on demographics, labor, environment, health and economic development are collected and crunched by U.N. agencies or the U.N.-affiliated World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Such figures “are very important because they help determine global growth and show weakness that needs to be addressed,” said Brett Schaefer, who follows international organizations for the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Although he has reservations about the quality of some raw data, Mr. Schaefer said statistics-gathering on balance “is one of the most useful purposes the U.N. serves.”

“These organizations provide information that everyone uses,” he said.

The United Nations also works with governments to build their capacities to take accurate countings and has standardized the formats and definitions for consistent information.

There are two ways to capture the data: Government ministries compile information about their citizens and share it with relevant U.N. agencies, and local enumerators go door to door to take a census, often asking questions that can be delicate or invasive.

In most cases, the two methods are used to complement each other, making it harder for governments to avoid disclosing potentially embarrassing figures such as disparity between girls’ and boys’ literacy levels.

Government figures are most reliable for administrative information, such as birth and death certificates, school enrollment, vaccinations and the like, specialists say.

Household surveys are best for capturing development issues, such as demographics, education, employment, spending and health.

“There is an overlap, of course,” said Diana Alarcon, whose 15-word title reflects the U.N.’s penchant for bureaucratic lingo that is so often lampooned by late-night comedians: Cluster Leader for Inclusive Development and Poverty Reduction in the U.N. Development Program’s Poverty Group.

“The ministry of education has a record of children in schools, but the child that does not go to school does not exist for that department,” she said. “But they will be captured by the survey.”

Data are especially elusive in countries in conflict, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.

Miss Alarcon points to progress made by Latin American and Caribbean nations in the quality of information.

The region “has invested a lot of resources in improving methodologies” as it transitioned to democratic rule, she said. “There is a large demand for statistics in the region, not only from the government, but civil society, media and donors, so that statistics have a high visibility.”

She said she hopes the Millennium Development Goals might trigger similar progress in Asian, African and Arab states, if donor countries demand to see quantified results for their contributions.

That is not to say that all countries are clamoring up the ladder of development. Indeed, some nations fight hard to remain in the bottom tiers of development where the benefits, including foreign aid and exemptions from trade regulations, are larger.

Take Samoa, a Pacific island nation of fewer than 300,000 people, which was on track to “graduate” from the list of least-developed nations a few years ago.

“This has been a big discussion for a couple of years,” said Miss Alarcon, who added that Samoan officials wanted to weight some information more heavily to allow it to stay lower on the global list.

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